UJ’s Prof Shireen Motala asks whether SA can afford fee-free education

​Since the advent of democracy in 1994, the government has pursued equity in education in the context of limited public finances, requiring the making of uncomfortable choices. According to Shireen Motala, who is at the helm of the Postgraduate School at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), discrimination in social spending has been considerably reduced, spending inequalities remain because of the high costs required to achieve fiscal parity in education.

Professor Motala argued that in schooling, a set of far-reaching finance equity mechanisms have been put in place, yet increased fiscal inputs are not translating into performance outcomes, and questions abound about whether the current equity approach is adequate, and whether differential redistribution has taken place, when she delivered her inaugural address in the Council Chambers, Madibeng Building, Auckland Park Kingsway Campus on Monday, 13 November 2017..

“In higher education, the slow progress towards equity has been brought into sharp focus by the recent widespread student protests. A focus on equity and redress, without support for students who come poorly prepared from the schooling system, has negative implications for quality, limiting the production of high-quality students and graduates with requisite knowledge, competencies and skills,” said Prof Motala.

She pointed out that there are four major themes which cut across the schooling and higher education sectors. These themes include: ‘no fee’ schooling and free higher education; education as a public and private good, and the relationship between social equity and education equity; expansion, equity and quality; and equitable funding models and approaches.

“It is essential to affirm and embed the notion that education is a public good, and foreground the view that equality and social justice must drive educational reform. In particular, differential redistribution must define our equity approach. In this way, the gains in terms of education access and participation in schooling will become the foundation for meaningful learning and outcomes which offer real-life chances in further and higher education and in the labour market – and mobility out of poverty,” said Prof Motala.

Prof Motala grew up in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and attended St Anthony’s Primary School, and Raisethorpe High School. Her academic qualifications include a BA (University of Durban-Westville), with majors in Drama and Sociology, a B Social Science Honours (University of Cape Town), an MA in Sociology (University of Warwick), a PGCE (University of London) and a PhD (University of the Witwatersrand). She has, more recently, undertaken executive training programmes in higher education, at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria, and the LH Thomas Institute, University of Melbourne.

On her return from Warwick University, under the able tutelage of Prof Martin Legassick, and under whom she undertook her MA thesis on Mass struggles in South Africa:1955-1960, she joined the trade union movement, in FOSATU, working alongside Alec Erwin, Jay Naidoo and Willies Mchunu.

Her career in the tertiary education sector began in 1992, and she has broad experience in research and academic management and leadership spanning some 20 years in two leading South African tertiary institutions.

From 1999 to 2010, she occupied a senior leadership position as Director of the Education Policy Unit (EPU) at the University of the Witwatersrand, conducting and overseeing nationally relevant education policy research. This was a pivotal time in South Africa’s history, and under her leadership, the EPU provided an independent and critical perspective and coordination of some of the major national policy initiatives.

In 2010, she was employed to establish and lead the postgraduate initiative at UJ, in keeping with UJ’s ambition for global excellence and stature. She was appointed Director of the Postgraduate Centre: Research and Innovation Division, and In May 2016, she was appointed Senior Director of the newly established Postgraduate School in the Research and Innovation Division and is part of UJ’s Executive Leadership Group.

She has held numerous leadership roles related to Higher Education including Chairperson of the Education Policy Consortium (2006-2010), Chairperson of the UNESCO South African Commission (2001-2006), and first inaugural president of the South African Research Association (SAERA) (2013-2014), and is presently a SAERA executive member.

In 2010 she was appointed by the Minster of Higher Education and Training to serve on the Council of Higher Education (CHE) and re-appointed in 2015 to the Council and to the Executive Committee of the CHE. In 2013, she served on the Ministerial Committee to review the national Senior Certificate examination, focussing specifically on promotion requirements. She has served on numerous Boards and is currently a trustee on the Boards of the Centre of Social Development in Africa, Centre for International Teacher Education, and the South African Institute for Distance Education. She is UJ’s representative on the international body, the Council of Graduate Schools and participates in the Universitas 21 activities.

Prof Motala has been the recipient of awards and scholarships, noteworthy of which have been the Spencer Fellowship to Stanford University in 2002, and the Harvard-South Africa Fellowship in 2006. She has worked closely with the various education ministers, to provide policy support and enjoys public intellectual engagement. She has worked with international agencies such as UNESCO, UNICEF, IIEP and the OECD, and has been commended for these contributions.

An NRF rated researcher, she has initiated and led collaborations between universities across Africa and with Asia and Europe, and this has led to the formation of long-term regional and international partnerships and multi-year research programmes on the topics of Human Rights, Democracy, and Social Justice (2000-2005), and Quality, Literacy and Numeracy in SA Schools (2005-2010). These collaborations forged partnerships between the EPUs, CEPD, HSRC and JET and other tertiary institutions. She was the principal investigator for the international Consortium for Research on Equity, Access and Transitions in Education (CREATE) between 2006 and 2014, producing substantial and influential research. She has been the recipient of funding from DiFD, NRF, SIDA, RNE and the NRF for these large-scale research projects.

Prof Motala’s research interests and expertise have been in the areas of education financing and reform, access and equity, education quality and internationalisation, straddling the schooling and higher education sectors.

Her doctoral research examined how financial redistributive strategies can provide equitable access and reduce inequalities in the South African public schooling system. Her research record is substantial and includes publications in journals and books and editorship of local and international journals. She has produced 27 peer-reviewed journal articles, 30 book chapters, edited several book publications, and presented at over 40 international conferences.

Her experiences in her various positions have provided her with a thorough understanding of processes of knowledge formation, teaching, learning, scholarship, intellectual life and the role of education in societal transformation. Conceptualising, organising, funding and managing research and research support teams in pursuance of sound and rigorous scholarship has been central to her career, and she moves easily within and between the spheres of scholarship, research, administration and policy. Promoting scholarship and a sound intellectual culture, and developing the next generation of scholars, in order to contribute to societal transformation, have been in the forefront of her activities, and will continue to be during her tenure at UJ.

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